Thursday, December 5, 2013

The wonderful world of what if . . . 

Let’s get this out of the way right now. There is no way the Browns will defeat the New England Patriots Sunday. Absolutely no way.

There. The prediction right up front. Final score to come.

No messing around. Get right to the point and be done with it.

Why screw around with the what ifs?

What if the Browns play their best game of the season on both sides of the ball and on special teams? What if Jason Campbell completes every pass he throws? What if Tom Brady is injured in the first quarter of the game? What if Bill Belichick coaches like he did in Cleveland two decades ago?

What if . . . what if . . . what if.

Normally, you can what if your way into just about anything. But the world of what if is a fantasy world, a dream world

It’s not going to happen.

Most fans know that. They don’t want to think about what’s going to happen in Foxboro, Mass., Sunday, but they are also realists. They realize the Patriots are an infinitely better football team than the Browns. They just hope the Pats show some mercy.

There is a monstrous chasm that separates the talent bases of the teams. The Patriots’ goal every season is go win the Super Bowl. Not get to the Super Bowl. Win it.

The Browns’ goal is to get better any way they can. Game by game, quarter by quarter, play by play. Just play better than the last game.

Under Belichick, the Pats are perennial contenders. Hard to do when you constantly pick at the bottom of each round in the college football draft. Unless, of course, you employ someone who selects wisely. And they do.

The Browns, on the other hand, are perennial residents of the AFC North basement. That’s because no one is bad enough to challenge them. The Baltimores, Cincinnatis and Pittsburghs of the professional football world know how to right a sinking ship.

Cleveland just ambles along each National Football League season, showing up when and where the schedule says it should.

The uniforms remain the same, although that reportedly will change sometime in the near future. The players come and go. Front offices come and go. But the results, like the uniforms, remain the same.

But I digress.

The game Sunday will be a study in contrasts. One team headed inexorably toward yet another postseason. The other headed inexorably toward what is hoped to be a painless conclusion to a miserable season.

The Patriots, unbeaten in six home games this season, against the Browns, a team that has won only once in five road games. One team with a future Hall of Fame quarterback against a team that might not know who will open under center until the day of the game.

Will it be ugly? Maybe. Depends solely on Belichick and how benevolent he feels between the hours of 1 o’clock and 4 o’clock.

Does he still have an affinity for Cleveland because that’s where he got his head coaching start? Or does he remember the last time these two teams met?

The date was Nov. 7, 2010 when the Browns welcomed the Pats to Cleveland Browns Stadium and proceeded to humiliate them, 34-14.

Peyton Hillis ran for 184 (of the Browns’ 230) yards and a couple of touchdowns, Colt McCoy managed the game nicely (14-of-19 for 174 yards and a touchdown with no picks) and the defense created three turnovers.

Brady threw for a pedestrian (for him) 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Aaron Hernandez, now incarcerated in a Connecticut jail, awaiting trial on murder charges.

The victory proved sweet revenge for Browns coach Eric Mangini, whose relationship with Belichick soured over Spygate. The Browns went on to win just two games the rest of what turned out to be Mangini’s last season in Cleveland, and finished 5-11.

The loss was New England’s second and last setback in the regular season. The Patriots finished 14-2 and went on to win eight straight games following the Cleveland loss before falling to the New York Jets in the division playoffs.

The current Patriots, who have scored 27 or more points in six of the last seven games, have played remarkable comeback football after sluggish starts in their last two games against Denver and Houston.

They overcame a 24-0 halftime deficit against the Broncos to win, 34-31, in overtime. They knocked off the Texans by the same score in regulation after trailing, 17-7 at the half. That’s just seven points in the first half of those games and 61 the rest of the way. Brady completed nearly 70% of his passes in those victories.

The Browns this season are much better in the first half than in the final 30 minutes. They’ve scored 135 of their 231 points (or 58.4%) in the first half and struggled with only 96 (or 41.6%) in the second half. Their best quarter by far is the second with 88 points (or 38.1% of their overall scoring).

So does that give the Browns some hope to at least stay in the game for the first 30 minutes? Uh, no.  Don’t forget about the difference in talent, especially in the passing game.

The receivers the Cleveland secondary will have to particularly mindful of are tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman, who was a quarterback in his collegiate days at Kent State.

Gronkowski, who missed the first six games of the season following back surgery, has caught a touchdown pass in his last four games, while Edelman, who has become Brady’s second-favorite receiver, has 18 receptions for 211 yards and a pair of scores the last two games.

Where the Browns might have a slight advantage is on the line of scrimmage when the Pats have the ball. Brady is not as mobile as he used to be. If the Browns’ pass rush, AWOL the last three games, ever reappears, the New England offensive line, which has given up 31 sacks, is vulnerable.

As for Josh Gordon, a third straight 200-yard game falls into the same category as the Browns’ chances of winning this game. If he gets 100, consider that a victory of sorts. You can bet he and tight end Jordan Cameron will be accorded close attention wherever they go. And since the Browns have no other receivers who worry opposing offenses, it’s time for the running game to finally step up. (Just kidding.)

Hard to believe, but the Browns lead the all-time series, 13-9, against New England with most of those victories (11) recorded by the old Cleveland Browns prior to the resurrection in 1999.

Suffice it so say, the Cleveland victory total against the Patriots will stay frozen after Sunday’s get together. The Pats get their revenge for 2010. Make it:

Patriots 37, Browns 10

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